Bolero Shmelaro: A Contrapuntal Justification For Smoking

ImageI am thinking today of Ravel, and his masterpiece Bolero, which I first heard in 1990 when I was 22 years old and I had just moved to Ottawa to come out of the closet and escape the stifling, claustrophobic environment of small town Nova Scotia. I had moved in with this slightly older and considerably more urbane gay man named Mark, and on my second night there he led me into the glassed-in sun porch in the rear of the house, sat me down in a white wicker chair with a glass of red wine ( I was too unsophisticated to know or care about the vintage or year) and put Bolero on the record player in the living-room to pulse softly (at least at first) out of the high end Harmon Kardon speakers hidden in the recesses of the back room. We settled in to listen.

I realize now Mark was trying to educate me, to cultivate my sensibilities by introducing me to high art. Everyone I met in the gay community was doing that to me in those days. I was a country rube, queer and cute, yes, but obviously a savage that needed to be schooled in the ways of city folk. I felt at times I was in a Jane Austen novel.

I hated Bolero from the first moment it began to undulate and slither and invade the house like a sonic worm. Its pulsating banal rhythms. Its mindlessly simple melody. Its methodical crawl upwards in excruciatingly slow, almost glacial,  crescendo. Tense anticipation of what was turning out to be nothing. Then the climax, which can best be described as volume combined with vacuity. A composer friend of mine told me years later that during the premier performance at the Paris Opera on November 22nd in 1928, a woman mid-way through the piece stood up and shouted that the composer was a madman. “Finally,” Ravel is supposed to have said. “Someone understands me.”

I understand the woman.

My first boyfriend two years before also tried to school in me in the art of being elegantly and discerningly gay. He dragged me along to Boston to witness Diana Ross in concert (and discernment instantly goes out the window) and he forced me to watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe, Parting Glances, Come on Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and listen repeatedly to Art Garfunkel’s first and only solo album while we made out in candlelight on the sofa. I saw my first opera with him. It was a performance of La Boheme at the Rebbecca Cohn, and since Halifax was then, and is now, a small city no orchestra accompanied the singers. All they had was a pianist in a tux frenetic at a baby grand. I loved the first half. The second was a let down and it was only years later when I saw it again with full orchestra I realized why. In the latter part of the opera, as we gently gyrate towards Mimi’s death, Puccini employs the strings to convey as much of the pathos as the singers do. Without the harp, violins, viola, cello, and double bass the full language, tenor and range of his opera cannot be expressed. He is all sotto voce. But I would not trade that first performance for anything. It taught me the value of integral parts. It taught me that no single voice carries any theme worth listening to; that the value is in the contrapuntal and melodic tension, the understanding of which makes or breaks a composer, or a novelist. Perhaps that is why I did not like Bolero, with its single-minded melodic insistence. It is a tone poem, an experiment, much as John Cage’s 4’33”  was 24 years later. Interesting, daring, unique and perhaps even important. But remember what Schoenberg said about his former pupil when asked by a reporter if he had ever taught anyone of promise. At first he said no, and then he mentioned Cage’s name. “He is not a composer,” he said. “But an inventor of genius.”

I have been schooled in many aspects of the world since that day I first heard Bolero 23 years ago (almost the same number of years between Ravel’s and Cage’s premier performances.) Some of those ways have been elegant and sublime. Others terrifying and degrading. I saw Tristan and Isolde in the opera house in Madrid, and I once slept in a heating vent in Oakland California to stay warm. (California, by the way, was the coldest place I’ve ever lived, but that is the topic of another blog.) My life is no Bolero. There is no one crescendo or one simple single melody. It is as complex, and at times as bewildering, as a Bach fugue. I quit smoking four months ago, and I stopped writing, even though I was midway rewriting a book. I was so blocked I couldn’t even blog, or do a Facebook update. I thought it would all come back, but after a four month wait it didn’t. The sound of the book in my head was as thunderously loud as a Mahler finale and yet I couldn’t get a word out on paper. Since then I’ve moved and started smoking again. I  began work the day I lit up and have been heavy at it ever since. Contrapuntal. Entwined. Complex.  It’s like  Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night when Duke Orsino says “If music be the food of love play on.” Everyone always quotes that as a sublime and sacred metaphor, when in fact it is the set up for a joke. A few lines later the mercurial Orsino says, “Enough! ‘Tis not so sweet as it was before.”  The usual qualifier: I’m no Shakespeare. But I suspect the dude wouldn’t have liked Bolero either.

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